Passed By Reference Vs. Value In Javascript

6/24/2019 · 3 minute read · 17 comments · 5937 views

Orginally posted on

title: Passed By Reference Vs. Value In Javascript published: true description: Understanding the difference can make you predict what your code is going to do. tags: #javascript #beginners #webdev

I think it’s important to understand memory and what goes on when you declare variables. Memory inside of a computer can be a confusing and abstract thing for a human mind to understand, so I think the best way to come to terms with it is through an analogy, which I will use as I explain this.

Imagine that your computer’s memory is a warehouse. Inside of that warehouse there are storage bins where boxes of data are kept. Upon declaring a variable, you ship a box to that warehouse where it is then given a bin that will hold it, until you need it later.

Primitive data types in Javascript are Passed by Value. If you’re not sure what the seven primitive data types are, that’s okay. I would stop and read this to get an idea. Chances are you’ve seen them all while you’ve been learning, but knowing the difference helps here. [MDN: Javascript - Data Structures] (

So say you set a variable to equal another. For example:

let box1 = 'sugar'
let box2 = box1

Let’s break this down… in our proverbial warehouse one of the workers goes to the bin box1 is in, examines the box, and uses its Javascript magic to create an exact clone of it. The worker then carries the clone off and stores it in a new bin for box2.

The value is copied, you see, box1 and box2 both have 'sugar’.

So, what if we change one of the values?

box2 = 'brown sugar'

console.log(box1) // returns 'sugar'
console.log(box2) // returns 'brown sugar'

They’re no longer the same, but that’s okay. Only the original value was passed when box2 was created, they’re not related to each other in any way and thus have no effect on each other.

Objects in Javascript use Pass by Reference. Most of the constructs in Javascript we use are Objects, so I think it’s important to understand how this works. Objects constitute {} with key-value pairs, as well as things like arrays and functions. You’ve probably heard the saying that “everything in Javascript is an object.” It’s somewhat true!

const box3 = {
  contents: "salt"

const box4 = box3

In this example our little worker recognizes that box3 is an Object. So he scribbles down its location in the warehouse. It then zips off to an open container for box4 and tapes the paper on the rack, referencing the location of box3 and its contents.

That is Passed by Reference. Sometimes the Objects we create or pull into our apps can be massive, with hundreds or perhaps even thousands of key-value pairs. It would be incredibly wasteful and not performant of the computer to make a clone everytime.

So, it simply references instead. At times this can have unforeseen consequences.

box4.contents = "pepper"

console.log(box3.contents) //returns "pepper"
console.log(box4.contents) //returns "pepper"

Wait, hold on! We didn’t mean for that to happen. Why did it?

Because box4 doesn’t contain its own value, it contains a reference to box3. By updating the contains property on box4, we’re actually telling it to update box3.contains.

That right there is where the difference can come to bite us. So, the question is, how do we make a clone of box3, rather than passing the reference along?

Well, ES6 gave us a very clean and nice way to do it, the spread operator.

box4 = { ...box3 }

You can also use the trusty old method of cloning, if you wish.

box4 = Object.assign({}, box3)

Mind you, this is a very basic primer to how these things work. I hope my examples and warehouse analogy helped some of you imagine the difference a little better than just reading a definition. Play around with this, experiment. Also, dig deeper, as it’s a very important subject for working with data in your apps.

You’ll cross paths with it or brush up against it at some point, I guarantee it.

EDIT: I found out from a really informative comment that this is a bit more nuanced than first appears, for more information check out this post: